Chavez recruits Chaplin for a lesson in revolution

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The Independent US

Charlie Chaplin's classic black-and-white movie Modern Times highlighted the exploitation and horrendous conditions faced by US factory workers during the Depression. Venezuela's leader Hugo Chavez believes it is as relevant today as it ever was.

At factories and meeting halls across Caracas, Mr Chavez's government has been showing the film to workers to expose what he believes are the evils of capitalism, and cement support for his socialist administration.

"I definitely think that what he is doing is to show the workers there what capitalism is about," said Gregory Wilpert, editor of venezuelanalys.com. "It is to reinforce the socialist ideas that his government has recently been proclaiming."

Officials said the 1936 silent film starring Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and Henry Bergman, has been shown about 1,000 times since January in 14 different states to educate workers who have little knowledge about their health and safety rights in the workplace. One Venezuelan official said that 1,500 workers died and thousands more were injured annually in factory accidents. One scene in the movie shows Chaplin's character, the Little Tramp, being pulled through a huge machine as he seeks to tighten a bolt.

"Once inside the factory, workers had no meaningful rights," Richard Shickel, a film critic, told The Los Angeles Times. "It was very relevant in the moment it was released, a time of social unrest and the emerging US labour movement."

In Venezuela, business owners are outraged. In a formal complaint to the government, the four main employer associations claimed that showing a film which depicted an employer as an exploiter of workers was designed "to generate hate and resentment in the labour sector [and] satanise the employer".

Mr Chavez, first elected in 1998, has been seeking to cement his support among the urban and rural poor ahead of his bid for re-election later this year. But experts said Mr Chavez also believed in the film's message.

Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said it was likely the Venezuelan leader was having some fun by showing the film, while making a serious point. "He believes that capitalism cannot bring the New Jerusalem for the average citizen and that you have to have a socialist economy," he said.

Mr Chavez has become Latin America's most vocal critic of the US administration. He has spent millions of dollars on health care, education and food subsidies and his presidency has seen improvement in literacy rates and poverty reduction. He has initiated land reforms and established a $10m (£5.4m) fund for families of peasant leaders killed by gunmen hired by disgruntled landowners.

Critics of Mr Chavez accuse him of attempting to tighten his control of state institutions and stifle the media.

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